Sicily: A Cheese Lover’s Itinerary

Cheese at the Market in CataniaBy now, you know that I am smitten with cheese travel. Of all the places I’ve visited, Sicily ranks #1 in my mind for having the most cheese-enthused citizens. (Sorry, Vermont.) The Sicilians I met during my two week cheese trek in June didn’t just love waxing poetic about their neighbor’s ricotta, they wanted to grab your hand and take you next door straightaway so you could eat it warm.

Even more impressive: locals know Sicily’s dozen or so traditional cheeses by heart and are eager to chat about their favorite styles, perfect pairings, and must-try regional dishes. Suffice it to say: Sicily is one big cheese party. I loved it, and I can’t wait to go back.

Goat Cheese Party in Sicily

For those of you interested in traveling to Sicily in pursuit of delicious dairy, let me pass along highlights from our itinerary. Full credit for trip-planning goes to artist and curator Marianne Bernstein, who invited me to chronicle Sicily’s cheese culture as part of her volcanic-island-based project, Due South, and to Sicilian native and professional travel planner Karen La Rosa. Check out her site for loads more tips.

Castle Di Tusa
Our journey starts here, in Castle di Tusa, a tiny beach town not far from Palermo — a terrific spot for adjusting to island life (seafood, siestas) and exploring the northern part of the island by car. It’s also an easy town to explore on foot, full of winding corridors, lemon trees, and sultry sea air.

Cindi and Marianne in Tusa

We stayed at The Tus’ Hotel for 4 nights. Think: gorgeous pool overlooking the ocean and clean, affordable rooms. Head to Ristorante Grotta Marina for freshly caught seafood, grilled vegetables, and plentiful pitchers of wine. Don’t miss the older, even quainter part of the city — a short but steep drive up the mountain — where you’ll find some of the island’s best ricotta at the local caseficio and one of Sicily’s best scenic views at The Belvedere, a bar stocked with Italian craft beers.

A Farm Near Tusa

Day trips: Dart over to the tiny mountain town of Mirto to pick up the best picnic fare you’ll ever find at La Paisanella, a pristine meat and cheese shop that is renowned for its black boar sausage, clay-baked ricotta, and Provola di Nebrodie (the local mountain cheese). Owners Luisa and Agostino don’t speak English, but they happily offered us a glorious tasting of the cheeses in their case. At nearby shops, we stocked up on cherries, apricots, fresh bread for the road. The local pastry shop, La Cometa, has great gelato and fabulous butter cookies topped with jam and pistachios, which I munched while meandering through hillside olive trees, snapping photos of stray cats and ancient Byzantine steeples.

Gangivecchio
Near the charming town of Gangi in the Madonie Mountatins, there’s a rustic cooking school in a 14th century Benedictine abbey. It’s run by noted cookbook author Giovanna Tornabene, a kind and proud native who speaks English and supports a local shepherd who makes beautiful cacciocavallo (a gourd-shaped cheese). We stopped in for a delicious lunch and toured the grounds, which look like something from a Merchant Ivory film — there’s a courtyard full of antique roses, fruit trees, and flowering vines.

Gangivecchio

Giovanna’s seven small rescue dogs were sleeping in the sun, and a pair of sheep stood grazing in a corner next to a pair of crumbling pillars. Book a few nights at the inn, and ask Giovanna to teach you how to make traditional Sicilian dishes, like the wonderful ricotta, eggplant, and mint frittata she served us or the digestif she described made with bay leaves from her trees.

Cooking School at Gangivecchio

Catania

A bustling city known for its open-air food markets, Catania is full of creatives, crumbling splendor, and colorful graffiti. We loved staying at BAD, an inexpensive art hotel with a glorious rooftop terrace (ask for the top floor apartment; it has a kitchen). The market unraveled right outside the front door, and there were plenty of spooling market streets to explore. Cheese vendors are especially plentiful, and you can spend an entire morning wandering amid bins of snails, whole swordfish, garlic braids, and fresh peaches.

Produce Market in Catania with Pears

Breakfast on fresh blood-orange juice, lunch on wine and oysters, and then make yourself a fabulous market cheese board of Piacentinu (a sheep’s milk cheese laced with saffron and peppercorns), sun-dried tomatoes, and toasted pistachios.

If you want to splurge on a great dinner, head to Wine Bar and order a bottle of Etna Rosso and swordfish risotto with capers and smoked scamorza; Wine Bar also offers a terrific Sicilian cheese board with local honey. Also, be sure to visit the city’s oldest bar, which has a hidden grotto in the basement with a trickling stream that passes almost unnoticed by diners in fashionable shoes. To atone for so much goodness, tour the cathedral of Saint Agatha, with its marble and lava rock interior, in the morning before the tourists descend, then treat yourself to life-changing cannoli studded with pistachios at Prestipino Cafe on the piazza.

Ragusa
My favorite cheese city! Ragusa is a beach town, agrarian paradise, and dairy hub. Here, you’ll find one of Sicily’s most stunning cheese shops, Dipasquale’s, plus a traditional-cheese research center (CoRFiLaC) which offers a terrific tour and tasting of Sicilian cheeses paired with wine (well worth the 35 EU). We loved staying in a country inn outside the city, Casina di Grotta di Ferro, where host Massimo Brullo shared all of his cheese connections, including a visit to his cheesemaker neighbor who provided us with fresh ricotta every morning. The inn and its grounds are stunning, with a stone courtyard, a glistening pool, and a communal kitchen that includes a wood-fired oven.

Courtyard at Grotta die Ferro

Massimo, our host, spoke perfect English and plied us with espresso throughout the day, answering questions and making recommendations for unusual restaurants, including a buffalo farm within a few kilometers where we feasted on two kinds of buffalo cheese made on site, along with buffalo prosciutto. Plan a beach day, a day or two in town, and at least one day to simply relax under the magenta bougainvillea by the pool. It’s hard to imagine a more divine place on earth. For those who like wine in their gelato, make sure to hit Ragusa’s Gelato Divini for a spiked scoop. Nearby, the town of Modica is chocolate central. It’s a little sick.

DiPasquales Cheese Shop

Dipasquale’s Cheese Shop in Ragusa

Palermo
For my final night, I dropped my bags at the Artemisia Palace, an affordable boutique hotel in the heart of the city and walked a few short blocks to the historic opera house (Teatro Massimo) to score last-minute tickets to the ballet. People-watching from a velvet-lined box seat in this opulent music hall was a highlight, so was a Sunday morning stroll to the Palermo cathedral, where I happened to catch a beautiful, incense-drenched mass. To eat: great street food, terrific pastries, granita, and gelato everywhere you look.

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Sicily Travel Tips

  • Look for cheap flights through Meridiana Airlines
  • June is a great time to visit, right before the tourist season
  • Festivals, religious and otherwise, abound in Sicily — check dates in advance
  • Consider renting a car and staying in small towns along the coast — they’re manageable and full of friendly locals who will happily tell you about regional specialties.

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Sicily Posts From This Series

Sicily: First Impressions

Tasting the Cheeses of Sicily

The Baked Ricotta of Mirto

The Cooking School at Gangivecchio

When in Ragusa, Eat Ragusano

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Outtakes

Unforgettable Ricotta (Tusa)

Unforgettable Ricotta (Tusa)

Unforgettable Travel Partners (Marianne Bernstein, Cindi Ettinger)

Unforgettable Travel Partners (Marianne Bernstein, Cindi Ettinger)

Unforgettable Hosts (Serena Perrone and "The Professore")

Unforgettable Hosts (Serena Perrone and “The Professore”)

 

 

 

 

 

When In Ragusa, Eat Ragusano

Ragusano cheese in RagusaIf Sicily has a cheese capital, it must be Ragusa, a baroque town on the southeastern part of the island. Here, my cheese lover, you may experience a thousand diversions, from visiting the beautiful Dipasquale’s Casa del Formaggio (cheese shop) in the heart of town to booking a cheese tasting at CoRFiLaC, a research center devoted to traditional cheesemaking in Sicily.

Ragusa is home to Ragusano, one of the island’s best-known (and most complex) cheeses. I was thrilled that our small band of cheese trekkers got to witness the preparation of this ancient recipe on two separate occasions. Let me show you how these curious bricks — perhaps the original brick cheese? — comes together.

Here’s Giovanni Tumino, a cheesemaker at CoRFiLaC, demonstrating how he starts the process by cutting curds into thin strips, then stretching them.

Giovanni Tumino Making Ragusano image

That’s right, the process looks a whole lot like mozzarella making. In fact, Ragusano is a pasta filata, or “spun,” cheese.

Next, the cheeses are formed and pressed into a coffin-like contraption called a Mastredda, made from Douglas Fir trees (below). Once the shape of the cheese is established, the blocks are brined, then stamped and dated since Ragusano is a DOP cheese, meaning that its production is connected to its place of origin — much like Champagne.

Here’s Giuseppe Tumino, a third generation cheesemaker, pressing Ragusano at his farm, where he makes 2 to 3 blocks per day from the milk of his Bruna cows. His farm is just down the road from the country house were we stayed, a wonderful B&B called Casina di Grotta di Ferro (highly recommended).

Giuseppe Tumino Pressing RagusanoTumino Farm in Ragusa

Seeing this process made me curious to know if any artisan makers in the States are making a cheese inspired by Ragusano. It’s a raw cow’s milk cheese made with traditional rennet from a lamb or kid.

Once brined, the cheeses are hung in pairs from rope, then slung over wooden supports to cave-age. For a prolonged aging time of 8 or 9 months, Ragusano is rubbed with olive oil. It can also be smoked.

Here’s affineur Angelo Dipasquale who handles the aging of Ragusano in has natural cave on the outskirts of Ragusa. About 100 families make Ragusano in small batches, and Angelo collects the best ones in his white van and ferries them back to his stone nursery.

Angelo Dipasquale in his Cheese CaveCheese Cave in RagusaI’ve never seen any place like Angelo’s cave. I hope to write a larger magazine story on this experience, so I’m just sharing a couple images here.

When you taste Ragusano, the experience calls to mind buttered sweet corn. I first encountered it in Philadelphia at my local shop, Di Bruno Bros., a few years ago. We included it in the shop’s cheese guide, The Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheeseand dubbed it “a cowboy of the Italian cheese world — big, sinewy, and salty.” The mongers at Di Bruno Bros. tell me that they still carry Ragusano from time to time, mostly around the holidays — which means I’ll just have to plan a second trip to Sicily to get my fix in the summers.

About This Series: This is Part V in a series of posts about a Sicilian Cheese Adventure with artist/curator Marianne Bernstein, who is working on a multi-artist project based called Due South. I got invited to join her when she got hooked on Sicilian ricotta and decided that she needed a cheese expert/writer to join her. “Okay,” said I.

Your Sicilian Cheese Itinerary: Up next! Want to recreate some of this journey yourself? My next post will include highlights from our trip with details about cheese tastings, specialty food stores, restaurants, and favorite accommodations. Many of these recommendations came from Karen La Rosa, a native of Sicily who now lives in New York City and offers tours and travel planning for anyone interested in visiting her homeland.

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Tasting the Cheeses of Sicily

Photo by David Kessler

Photo by David Scott Kessler

For the cheese-curious traveler in Sicily (or Italy, for that matter), there are several useful books to read in advance: Slow Food’s Italian Cheese and Italy Dish by Dish. Before I left the States, I scoured them both and spent an evening at my kitchen table making a list in my journal of all the divine bites I hoped to taste: warm ricotta, the wine-flame flavored ice creams of Ragusa, honey from Mount Etna, brioche con gelato.

Of course, my real dream was to eat all of the cheeses of the island (there are about 12, mostly sheep’s milk, many of them produced for centuries). At a restaurant called Wine Bar Razmataz in the buzzy city of Catania, that dream came true.

A board of Sicilian cheeses arrived at the table on the night of a birthday dinner for Due South curator (and instigator behind this trip) Marianne Bernstein. Glory be! There were 5 cheeses, accompanied by toasted local pistachios and honey from the bees of Mount Etna (I imagined them circling the mouth of the volcano as I drizzled honey across each morsel).

This post, produced in collaboration with artist/photographer David Scott Kessler, is a tribute to that warm, starry, dairy-laden night. Let me paint the scene: the outdoor table was lit with candles, and gathered around it were a multitude of artists from Philadelphia and Sicily. The night began with a bottle of Etna Rosso (a nose to the glass yielded the faint smell of ash and raspberries) and ended with cheesecake and fireworks, shot from behind the crumbling walls of a castle.

One of those meals to remember?

Definitely.

And now, the cheeses of Sicily…not all, to be sure, but a beautiful few for a reverential board that represents the island.

On the Board: 5 Traditional Sicilian Cheeses

1. Piacentinu Ennese

From the province of Enna, an indigenous sheep’s milk cheese swirled with threads of local saffron and studded with peppercorns. Sweet, aromatic, mild, available in the U.S.

2. Tuma Persa

Made by a single maker, Salvatore Passalaqua, this raw cow’s milk cheese is firm and spicy, thanks to a rub of black pepper and olive oil on the rind. Available in the U.S. at Di Bruno Bros.

3. Vastedda del Belice

A very unusual raw-milk sheep cheese that is “spun” (like mozzarella). Sweet and mild, with a short shelf life.

4. Capra Girgentana

Made from the milk of the rare spiral-horned Girgentana goat, native to Sicily and near extinction, this fresh cheese is wrapped in fig leaves. Stunning.

5. Pecorino Siciliano D.O.P

An ancient cheese made from raw sheep’s milk, thought to be the first cheese in all of Europe, according to Slow Food.

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If you go: Wine Bar Razmataz was the best restaurant on my journey. The vibe is relaxed, the wine list is excellent, and the kitchen highlights regional cuisine. My favorite dish was the risotto with swordfish, capers, and smoked scamorza cheese.

Recreate this board: Ask your local cheesemonger about these selections or similar selections. In Philadelphia, Di Bruno Bros. carries Piacentinu and Tuma Persa. You may find others at Eataly in New York. If not, you just may have to plan a trip to Sicily. Itinerary coming soon!

Posts in this Series: This is the 4th in a series of posts about the cheeses of Sicily. I traveled around the island this summer to chronicle its cheeses as part of an ongoing project curated by Marianne Bernstein, called Due South.

 

The Baked Ricotta of Mirto

La Paisanella Cheese and Meat ShopBefore my Sicilian cheese trek began, I saw images of  “Ricotta Infornata” — sheep’s milk ricotta pressed into forms and baked to a dark chocolate-brown color. Naturally, I was curious to find a source.

My co-conspirators, Marriane and Cindi, helped me suss out the small town of Mirto in the Nebrodie Mountains which is home to a renowned cheese and meat shop, La Pasianella. Here, Luisa and Agostino Sebastiano continue their family tradition of making traditional cheeses and wild boar salami. Any food fiend who travels to Sicily should plan a stop. (Pack a cutting board, you’ll want to picnic.)

La Pasianella Cheese Shop in Sicily

La Paisanella is pristine, its entrance flanked by award certificates. When we arrived, Luisa treated us to a tasting of all the cheeses in her case, including the cheese I’d been looking for: Ricotta Infornata.

She also showed us the oven where the ricotta is baked “for two to three hours.”  The long baking time yields a delicacy that tastes caramelized, like flan. Delicious. I can imagine eating slices of it for dessert with coffee liqueur.

If you stop through Mirto, here are 3 things not to miss:

– House-cured black boar sausage from the family’s black pigs (Suino Nero)

– Nebrodi Provola (the local mountain cheese, which has been inducted into the Slow Food Presidium)

– Ricotta Infornata (slow-baked ricotta, pictured below)

Ricotta Infornata from La Paisanella in Sicily

If You Visit: Mirto is an exquisite small town in the Nebrodie Mountains. You won’t find any tourists, just stray cats, Byzantine ruins, incredible mountain vistas, and friendly locals hanging out at La Cometa, the local pastry shop, where the old men like to watch soccer and nibble butter cookies. Try the gelato and pick up some baked goods for the road.

Note: This post is Part 3 of a Sicilian cheese trek I am undertaking as part of Due South, a Philadelphia-based arts collaborative.

 

 

The Cooking School at Gangivecchio

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The drive to Gangivecchio is golden. The mountain roads are edged in wheat. Bursts of turmeric-colored bushes surprise us as we make our ascent by car. Even the light falling across distant hilltops appears honey-colored.

It’s no wonder that some of the best caciocavallo we’ve tasted is served here, at a small inn and cooking school in the middle of the Madonie Mountains. The cheese is golden, too — the color of rich milk from animals grazing on nearby pastures.

Fields of the Madonie Mountains Near Gangi

The cheeses of the Madonie mountains are special, Giovanna Tornabene tells us proudly as she sets out a plate of caciocavallo (Kah-CHEE-oh-kah-vall-oh) on a green platter at her dining room table. Later her shepherd joins us, Salvatore Duca.

The two of them have worked out a good trade, Giovanna explains, her long gold earrings winking at us as she gives us a tour of the grounds, including a Benedictine abbey from the 14th century which is flanked by fruit trees and rose bushes. “I let the shepherd graze his animals on my land for free as long as he gives me fresh ricotta and caciocavallo.”

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Caciocavallo is a traditional Sicilian cheese with an unusual shape: it looks like a water balloon. Bulbous, it’s made to air-dry in the sun, then travel by horseback down the mountain to market. When you see caciocavallo hanging in cheese shops, they are usually in pairs (originally, this was so they could be slung over a saddle). Look for them — they’re the size of boxing gloves.

One thing I love about this cheese is that its form derives from function. Even its name, caciocavallo, means “cheese on horseback.” It’s not named after a town, as so so many cheeses are, but after its method of transport.

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At Gangivecchio, we eat half-moons of caciocavallo slathered with Giovanna’s spicy pepper jam. It’s just one of the many homegrown condiments she makes in her kitchen, part of a cooking school she runs at her inn. Guests come from all over the world to learn Sicilian cooking from her, having read the two James-Beard-Award winning cookbooks she wrote with her late mother Wanda. The books came about after an editor from Knopf stopped here for lunch 25 years ago.

“What did you serve him for lunch?” I ask.

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Giovanna grins as steaming bowls of pasta emerge from the kitchen. “Exactly what you are having,” she says, proudly. The dish — Five Nut Pesto — is a revelation. Finely chopped pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios swim in olive oil lightly seasoned with garlic. Each bite yields all five favors, and Giovanna tells us that all of the nuts — except the pistachios — come from her own trees.

It’s easy to see why an editor would offer her a book deal after eating this dish.

Caciocavallo

Near the end of our meal, the shepherd joins us. He’s young, maybe 30 and speaks to Giovanna in Sicilian. He’s delighted that we are enjoying his caciocavallo and tells us, through Giovanna’s translation, that he is applying for regulatory status to make Sicilian cheeses using traditional methods — something the European Union manages now.

“We used to make cheeses like Homer describes,” Giovanna says. Now, cheese is made “like in a hospital.” She throws up her hands: “plastic baskets, white walls, people in masks!”

At Gangivecchio, Giovanna holds fast to tradition, both in the kitchen and in the field. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Salvatore Duca

Visiting Gangivecchio: Giovanna’s inn has about dozen rooms. She offers her guests breakfast and dinner, along with cooking classes in preserving local delicacies and preparing Sicilian cuisine.

About this Project: This post is the third in a series for an interdisciplinary project called Due South. For two weeks, I will be in Sicily writing and photographing cheese. You can follow along here and on my Instagram: @mmefromage.